Tony Cliff
and Ian Birchall

France – the struggle goes on

The resilience of the PCF

After all the damage the French Communist Party has done to the working class, how can one explain the fact that still the overwhelming majority of the French workers remain loyal to it? The two greatest periods of growth of the Party were during the Popular Front period in 1936, and the Liberation of 1945; both were occasions when it held back a working-class thrust towards power, and diverted it into safe parliamentary channels. The great resilience of the Party was shown also at the time of the Hungarian Revolution. Certainly the rank and file did not support the Russian action there, and the leaders of the CGT were unable to get their members to endorse it, which compelled them to leave it as an open question; but the Party lost few members or votes over the question.

An analysis of the sources of the enormous strength and resilience of the French Communist Party is necessary. To do this requires a recognition that Stalinism has a coherent logic. Whatever may be the motives of the leadership, the rank-and-file militants who have beaten up leftists and turned students away from the factories have done so out of sincere acceptance of the Party position.

Certainly one important reason is the fact that the workers cannot see any viable alternative. They cannot leave the Communist Party in spite of all its crimes unless they can replace it with another party.

A second reason is the innate conservatism which characterises all mass organisations. After all, a couple of generations of the working class have gone through the PCF. This has created a strong tradition. Workers feel deep loyalty to those who reared and educated them.

These two factors explaining the stability of the mass support of the PCF apply also to the mass Social Democratic Party. There are, however, some specific features that distinguish the Stalinist PCF from traditional Social Democracy, which add greatly to the resilience of the former.

Like Social Democracy, the PCF has a social base in the labour aristocracy, in the management of town councils and local administrations. Its members who are trade union delegates get subsidies from the state. It has many members in the trade union bureaucracy. It benefits from the privileges accorded by French capitalism to the higher social layers of the labour movement. But, unlike Social Democracy, the PCF is more able to protect its flank from attacks from the left, as its relation to the ruling capitalist class of France is more ambivalent. The Kremlin never offered the PCF for sale to L’Elysée, but only for hire. The fact that again and again the PCF broke out, or was thrown out of official society, helps its leaders to refurbish their tarnished image.

To keep its influence among the workers the PCF leaders time and again organise “struggles”, naturally always contained and controlled, but nevertheless struggles.

The historical background of the PCF explains why it can indulge in such struggles, while Social Democracy can not.

The degeneration of Social Democracy took place during a period of rising capitalism with relative social peace, the period preceding the First World War. It had grown into bourgeois conformism, as it did not need to use methods of “struggle” to keep its rank and file in tow. When a prolonged period of crises and upheavals came, Social Democracy could not adapt itself to the new methods needed to keep its mass base. The degeneration of the Communist International took place under completely different conditions, during the period of big convulsions following the greatest revolutionary crisis the world had known.

The above factors – dependence on the Soviet bureaucracy (and only in the second place on French capitalism), and preserving its capacity to indulge in “struggles” – give rise to another factor, quite significant in the stability of the PCF: its totalitarian nature.

Social Democracy as a bourgeois party has much more centralism than democracy in it. The well-clad bureaucrats at the top of the party are quite free from any real control by the rank and file. As with the rest of capitalist society, decisions are made by a small group at the top and handed down to the people below. Freedom to discuss issues (and choose “representatives”) once in so many years is all that remains to the rank and file. If the need arises to settle accounts with the revolutionaries, as in Germany in 1919, it is not the Social Democratic Party members who grew up in bourgeois conformism and legalism who need do the dirty job, but the military and police arms of capitalism.

The Communist Parties were formed in opposition to the bourgeois legalism of Social Democracy, and countered this legalism by proclaiming the necessity for revolutionary violence. Following their bureaucratic degeneration the Communist Parties the world over, while losing the revolutionary content of their action, still kept their attitude of support for violence. Freed from squeamishness on this score, the Communist Parties educated their own militants to hunt down oppositionists. The apparatus was strong enough to isolate the revolutionaries from the rank and file of the Communist Party and its trade unions for decades.

For a whole generation no Trotskyist was allowed by the PCF to sell newspapers at the factories or in their neighbourhood. Again and again the sellers were severely beaten up. Never for a moment did the PCF relax its vigilance in hunting down Trotskyist militants and expelling them from the unions.

One need but think of the 13 May demonstration in Paris when something like 20,000 CP stewards linked arms to separate the workers from the students! No Social Democratic Party has anything like this apparatus of strong-arm men.

Connected with all the above factors is another strengthening the PCF control over the masses. No channel of spontaneous rank-and-file organisation and expression is available not only in the Party but also in the Party-controlled union, the CGT.

The local branches and sections of the CGT have general members’ meetings only in exceptional cases, hardly once a year. The only union meetings which take place are those for the union apparatus. Generally these meetings are called “CE” (Executive Committee) meetings, and are attended only by workers allowed “special time” (paid as work hours) in order to carry out their mandate as “délégués du personnel” (elected representatives of the employees) and as members of the “Comité d’Entreprise” (committee of workers and management representatives dealing with labour conditions).

Whenever the CP can, it tries to penetrate throughout the union structure and keep all posts entailing responsibility in the hands of Party members. “Unreliable” elements are kept away from meetings. The “delegates” are elected from union lists. Thus, unlike in England, a worker may be elected as steward by workers who, though he is in the same union [77], do not know him, or even personally detest him. Each delegate is entitled to 15 paid hours every month:

The CGT may decide that a rotating strike of half an hour or quarter of an hour every fortnight is the best way to fight the management. This decision is not put to the vote of the workers, but in the workshops or sections some convinced workers are sent to organise broad democratic debates on the problem of organising the rotating strike. Thus the choice of day and time is entrusted to the decision of these rank-and-file assemblies. Anyone who intervenes to say he is not in agreement with the principle will soon find himself told that that is not the subject under discussion. [78]

Lines of communication are by and large open only to the CP and the CGT. The CGT is able to transmit information from one group to another – telling one shift or shop that the others are already in agreement for (or against) the strike, and thereby convincing them to act as required. [79]

The CP’s disciplinary powers in industry are strong. To quote just one example cited by a worker at Renault:

In 1960, the management sacked nearly 3,000 workers. These, helped by some others, demonstrated their hostility violently by breaking the management’s windows ... the next day ... a leaflet from the CGT attacked the smashers as provocateurs and by implication pointed to three of the culprits. As a result two were sacked for this; the only charge against them was the said leaflet. The three named were members of other unions. [80]

On the basis of the totalitarian nature of the PCF a highly developed leader cult arose.

In particular, a cult grew up around the person of Maurice Thorez. Ever since 1946 official lists of the membership of the Central Committee put Thorez at the head of the list and not in his place in alphabetical order. [81] In May 1950 a National Exhibition was held to celebrate Thorez’s fiftieth birthday. [82] At this time the Party issued recruiting forms headed “I join the Party of Maurice Thorez”, which only named the Communist Party in small print at the bottom. [83]

On the occasion of Stalin’s death the Party sent a message to Thorez including the following:

It seems to us that in the immense space of the great hall your voice echoes – your voice which created our party ... Your presence gives a face to all our hope. And we feel you present within each one of us. [84]

Accepted by millions as the only party of the working class, while at the same time more and more implicated in bourgeois politics – parliamentarism, “peaceful co-existence”, and so on – the PCF bolsters the bourgeois prejudices of its supporters, and is itself fed by them. Many of the Party supporters at present do not regard it so much as the embodiment of the ideas and traditions of October 1917, but as the embodiment of reformist opportunism. Thus a survey carried out in 1952 by IFOP (French public opinion polls) of voters for various parties found the following concerning the PCF: 29 per cent thought the party not intransigent enough (as against 13 percent too intransigent and 42 percent just right); 41 percent favoured reform by means of revolution, 50 percent by means of reform; 40 percent thought the Party should never take power by force; 32 percent voted Communist to support the struggle for peace, and 39 percent for its anti-capitalist programme; 46 percent thought war was the most important problem and 32 percent the cost of living; 74 percent thought France should stay neutral in a general war. [85]

As in the social democratic parties, the supporters of the PCF participate less and less in any party activity, even so far as reading the party press. Thus, for instance, while the CP retained its vote of around 5 million for more than two decades, the circulation of L’Humanité fell from around 400,000 in 1947 to around 200,000 today.

The strength of the PCF lies above all in the fact that for many years it has been the only political power of the opposition, the only left-wing force, which crystallises round itself all the hopes of change.

However, the mole of history burrows on ...

In May 1968, for the first time, a serious threat from the left rose before the PCF; for the first time since the degeneration of the Communist International the extreme left appeared as a political force in the country that was not negligible. Tens of thousands of youth, including tens of thousands of young workers, turned towards revolutionary politics. For the first time a mass movement independent of the CP arose. It was limited practically only to the youth. It was confused, but it was there.

There are a number of other circumstances that will make it much more difficult this time for the PCF to retain custody of the working class. In 1936 it was the party on the extreme left, as the main working-class party was still the Social Democratic Party (SFIO). At that time the CP attracted to itself the poorest sections of the working class – the unorganised workers. In 1945 the PCF was the party of the Resistance, and attracted many skilled workers and petit bourgeois elements who had hitherto been the social base of Social Democracy. Now the PCF is the leadership, hence it is in an exposed position. Above all, the constellation of international political forces is completely different from that of 1936 or 1945: Moscow has lost its magical influence in the world. [86]

Unfortunately the PCF may succeed in carrying through a third, fourth and fifth betrayal of the working class if no credible revolutionary alternative arises, if no revolutionary party comes into being. If the study of history – even the most recent – were enough by itself to solve political questions, Social Democracy would have died a long time ago, and so would Stalinism. Alas, this is not how history works. And there is nothing more foreign to socialism than fatalism.




77. D. Mothé, Militant chez Renault (Seuil, 1965), pp.40-41.

78. D. Mothé, Militant, p.50.

79. D. Mothé, Militant, p.54.

80. D. Mothé, Militant, pp.28-29.

81. Histoire, p.16.

82. Histoire, p.65.

83. M. Duverger, Political Parties (Methuen, 1959), p.181.

84. J. Fauvet, Histoire du Parti, II, p.260.

85. P.M.W. Williams, Crisis and Compromise (London, 1964), pp.509-510.

86. By the way, the only bookshop in Paris that does not display books on the May events is the Communist Party bookshop.


Last updated on 6.6.2003